American Lion by Jon Meacham

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American Lion Book Cover American Lion
Jon Meacham
Biography & Autobiography
Random House Incorporated

Andrew Jackson, his intimate circle of friends, and his tumultuous times are at the heart of this remarkable book about the man who rose from nothing to create the modern presidency. Beloved and hated, venerated and reviled, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who fought his way to the pinnacle of power, bending the nation to his will in the cause of democracy. Jackson’s election in 1828 ushered in a new and lasting era in which the people, not distant elites, were the guiding force in American politics. Democracy made its stand in the Jackson years, and he gave voice to the hopes and the fears of a restless, changing nation facing challenging times at home and threats abroad. To tell the saga of Jackson’s presidency, acclaimed author Jon Meacham goes inside the Jackson White House. Drawing on newly discovered family letters and papers, he details the human drama–the family, the women, and the inner circle of advisers–that shaped Jackson’s private world through years of storm and victory.

One of our most significant yet dimly recalled presidents, Jackson was a battle-hardened warrior, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency as we know it. His story is one of violence, sex, courage, and tragedy. With his powerful persona, his evident bravery, and his mystical connection to the people, Jackson moved the White House from the periphery of government to the center of national action, articulating a vision of change that challenged entrenched interests to heed the popular will–or face his formidable wrath. The greatest of the presidents who have followed Jackson in the White House–from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to FDR to Truman–have found inspiration in his example, and virtue in his vision.

Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.

Jon Meacham in American Lion has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency–and America itself

Andrew Jackson
Eighth President of the United States

“It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. . . . In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich ricer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses.”
–Andrew Jackson

This book was not one of the better ones that I’ve read. It covers a lot of ground, while missing a lot more. I kept trying to figure out if Meacham intended to write a biography on Andrew Jackson, or if his objective was to cover the specific presidential years and the impact that Jackson had on the executive office. This made for a hard read because he kept shifting timelines and focuses, making it a hard book to follow in places. Compounding this problem was the fact that the chapters were short, and broken into even shorter snippets of what I think was an ongoing history, broken into segments. Overall the flow and rhythm of the book was very choppy and the continuity was lacking. However, two points that Meacham was able to make were probably the most important in relation to the Jackson administration – his adaptations effectuated in the executive office and the birth of party politics.

Most people hear about Andrew Jackson and quickly identify him as the Donald Trump of his era; a loose cannon who practiced cowboy politics with renegade ideas and drama promoting scenes that left people wondering if he was sane or crazy as a loon. But Meacham argues that Jackson was a savvy politician, with some innovative ideas when it came to politics. Everything he did was with purpose and clear cut objectives towards which he was working. “What he had was a charm that made other men like him and want to join him in exploits that crossed the line of respectability, but never so dramatically that they could not stumble back into the good graces of their wives and neighbors by morning.” (Meacham, American Lion). According to Meacham, it was this ability to engage with the people that made him one of the more successful presidents, as well as the one who had the most impact on moving the executive office towards what we know it as today.

Through Meacham’s book we come to appreciate not so much the successful war general, who earned his reputation on the battlefield, but rather the astute observer of men, who was able to identify those who could successfully help Jackson evolve the presidency into a much more public office. Essentially Meacham argues that Jackson moved into the presidential office with a revolutionary idea of the presidency that would ultimately change not only the executive office, but the face of politics in the American culture forever. Jackson had a clear vision of government that was centered on the people – not the government. While these are things that we take for granted in our modern rendering of the government, at the time of Jackson it was revolutionary in its implementation. Jackson saw government as (1) sovereignty of the people combined with a powerful executive office, (2) liberty required security, (3) freedom required order, and (4) the well-being of the nation required unity among the states.

Jackson perceived himself as a leader of the people, not the electors; as such, he was accountable to the people, not the government representatives who put him in office. “Jackson was the first president to advance the theory that the President was the representative of the people and that the mandate from the ballot box warranted his intervention in the legislative process.” (Meacham, American Lion). In other words, Jackson’s loyalty was to the people and separated him from the legislature, creating the power struggle rift that we are so familiar with today. Jackson essentially set himself up as an opponent to congress – making him the people’s president, who stood against the “evil” machinations of an out of control legislature. Jackson accomplished this feat through two dramatic evolutionary steps: his broadened use of the veto power, and his popularization of the executive office to the general public.

Jackson became a strong proponent of the veto power granted to the president. He saw this as a means of engaging in and influencing the legislative process and not as a power to be used as a last resort check on congressional power. This interpretation of the veto power ultimately would expand the power of the presidency to degrees never anticipated before. “The veto was a legislative power given to the President without directions or limitations, and that the President was even more competent than the Congress by virtue of his national and representative character to judge the wishes of the electorate.” (As quoted Patterson, C. Perry, American Lion). Today, our concept of the presidential veto is simply the last stage of the legislative process. Not only does a bill have to clear both houses of congress, but the presidential office as well. The president has the ability to throw out any legislative action, unless Congress can accumulate a 2/3’s super-majority to over-ride a presidential veto. We understand the presidential review as the last in the line of the legislative process, not as the check to legislative power. However, this concept and understanding came directly from Jackson’s administration. Jackson wielded the veto like a weapon against congress and his opponents particularly, turning it into an instrument of making legislation, not a tool of countermanding actions that congress may use in an attempt to usurp excessive power from the states.

In order to solidify this expansion of presidential authority, Jackson turned to the masses. Rather than relying on the political infrastructure, Jackson relied on the people in the most public ways possible. Jackson “wanted a political culture in which a majority of the voters chose a president, and a president chose his administration, and his administration governed . . . in full view off the people.” (Meacham, American Lion). He envisioned a president as being highly visible and openly accessible to the people who elected him to that office. He introduced and widened the debate surrounding the efficacy of the Electoral College, and argued that he was a direct representative of the people and answerable to them.

Jackson was the first president to rely on the printed news to make sure that the people were an active and important part of his presidency. He relied on Francis Preston Blair, an early Jackson supporter and brainchild of The Globe, which become the official news outlet to the people. This outlet “gave Jackson absolute power over his own newspaper – which in turn meant absolute power over how the country, or at least the part of the country that read the administration’s paper, saw the White House.” (Meacham, American Lion). This trend strongly continues today in the time of modern media and massive information accessibility. While Jackson understood the importance at the time, his engagement with the press set an example for future generations that would ultimately make it necessary for the White House to have an in house Press Secretary and staff to handle the massive interaction efforts between the executive and the public.

But perhaps the most influential aspect of Jackson’s presidency was the introduction of the modern party system. With the help of Van Buren, Jackson and his supporters established what would come to be known as the Democratic Party. It was through the political power struggles of Jackson’s administration between the Democratic Party and the newly founded opposing Whig Party that the modern concept party politics emerged. “The 1832 contest featured much that was to become commonplace in American politics: national nominating conventions, intense tactical organization, considered use of the incumbent’s time and energies in appearances before the public, and an interesting but unsuccessful third-party bid” for the presidential office. (Meacham, American Lion).

Overall, Meacham doesn’t do a great job at presenting a basic biography of President Andrew Jackson. However, he excels at identifying the significant evolutionary changes that grew out of his administration. He is passionate about his subject, although at times it comes across as a little bit disorganized into presentation. The book is certainly worth the read as a means of gaining an appreciation for how we ended up with the political system we have today.

Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

My Rating:
2.5 rating

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